You can’t help but smile when talking to chef Manlee Siu.
The top toque in the kitchen of Angle, the signature fine-dining restaurant at Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa, Siu is a Hong Kong native with a down-to-earth demeanor that emanates throughout the sleek, supper-club-style venue.
Boasting a résumé filled with top honors (including stints at Bay Area Four-Stars Gary Danko and Meritage at the Claremont, and multiple appearances in the prestigious James Beard House kitchen), Siu has a passion for produce that’s palpable from the moment you meet her — whether you run into her on one of her weekly farm visits or you’re sitting down to dinner at her elegant eatery.
With an ever-changing menu spotlighting the region’s varied bounty, Angle’s offerings are photo-worthy favorites that keep Palm Beach’s clientele coming back year after year.
Forbes Travel Guide recently caught up with this petite powerhouse chef ahead of the restaurant’s November 7 reopening (Angle closes during the slow season) to ask her about her favorite farmers, her inspiration and what we can expect from her innovative menus this winter.
What inspired you to start cooking?
I will do anything to get incredible products. I think I learned that from my mom. She goes to Chinatown and we would go to 20 stores, even though one store has everything, she’s like, “No, no. They don’t have the good carrots here. They have the good carrots three blocks away.”
And I’m carrying all these bags, so my mom can get the carrots from this one store and she’s only getting like two of them. And I’m like, “Mom, really? You don’t want to get more?” And she goes, “No, because I only want them for tonight.” I think that’s where I get it from.
My mom is not one of those “let’s go to Costco and buy enough for the whole month” [parents]. We buy what we need for that night or that week. And with six kids, you have to do that.
Yeah, I have six kids in my family. That’s why I had to learn to cook. You have to fend for yourself.
Why is sourcing locally so important to you?
We’re not getting stuff from other countries. We’re supporting our local farmers, and then they give back.
It’s staying true to what we believe in, and it’s so important to support our local farmers. Without these guys, I wouldn’t be doing what I do. I wouldn’t love doing what I do.
What is your process for creating new dishes?
I’ll bring my guys to different farms so they understand that we don’t waste anything. To me, vegetables have a primal cut where you have the really meaty part. But also, we use everything else: the stalk for pickling, fermenting. Nothing is wasted because someone has to work hard to grow this stuff. You know, people think, “Oh, someone ships it. It comes in a box.” No.
And I love it when the vegetables are not perfect, when they’re not all perfectly sized. You look at it and it’s like, wow. Now, you have to do something wonderful with it. For me, it’s really about the product and my team executing it.
But creating the menus is actually the easy and fun part. Nothing’s more exciting than coming out here, and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, look at this tomato. What can we do with this?” It’s so wonderful that I don’t have to do a lot with it.
The food [at Angle] is just so simple. I have a tomato salad where I just toss them in some really good olive oil, a little pepper and salt, and that’s all I do. The tomato stands out by itself. The simplicity for me is the perfect thing about a good vegetable. It’s my farmers that make me look good.
So, you just let the vegetables and the products speak for themselves?
I really do, especially when [the farmers] work so hard. I’m very much about giving them back credit. On my menu, you’ll see Marie’s name [from Bedner’s Farm]. you’ll see Swank. You’ll see Green Cay — they’re the ones that do the hard work. They’re the ones, I think, that we have to give a lot of credit to.
You do a “seasonal menu,” but the offerings change based on what’s available, rather than the seasons themselves?
Yes. And it’s fun because I can plan my menu myself, so we can change it.
And it’s hard for [the farmers] because, like last night, we had this big rainstorm and it knocked things out. They’ll call me and say, “Well, we don’t have this, but we have this.” And I’ll change the menu. I’m very fortunate that way.
We try to keep the menu vague. Like, we’ll say “carrots,” but we won’t specifically say what type because I’m not sure what they’re going to have. I’ll call around and see who has radishes. Someone’s going to be harvesting radishes, but I won’t say exactly what type of radish. That way, I’m just a little more free by using different farmers.
You’ve worked at so many different restaurants across the country. What would you say is different about working here?
The different growing seasons and the different products. When I worked in Princeton, New Jersey, we’d get a lot of really nice winter vegetables. We’d get squash and everything.
Where here, you get butternut squash in the summer. So, the season is, like, the opposite for us. Also, the products are different. I’ve learned to adjust to working with their products. The butternut squash is big in New Jersey. Where here, it’s so cute and intense in flavor.
And Eau is so wonderful. They’re just like, “Go wherever you need to go and get what you need.” As long as the result is there and the guest is happy, it’s all about the experience. I want you to experience what I experience out here. And if I can do that, my job is done.
Have you come across any local ingredients that have gotten you excited to start cooking this fall?
We’ll definitely go more fall with the squash and the pumpkins and stuff like that. We have local pumpkins here. Squash does very well here, especially butternut squash.
I’ll do something with cranberries. I’m an old-fashioned girl when it comes to fall. I want to see apples and pears and persimmons. Definitely coconut, because everywhere I turn there’s a coconut tree! So, something with a coconut base. I don’t do a lot of dairy, so usually I do use coconut as a substitution a lot of times in my sauces. Lemongrass does very well in Florida. And yuca.
Usually, the farms don’t explode with a lot of stuff until December, so what I’ll probably do is go fall for this menu and then, when December comes, that’s when we get the beautiful tomatoes and beans and stuff like that. That’s when I really have more of the farms involved on the menu.
I want to use sunflowers again this year. That’s something that Bedner had that was beautiful, and I did like a sunflower heart, which is very much like an artichoke heart.
Tomatoes should be coming in. Strawberries will be coming in December, which is very odd to me. It was the most bizarre thing my first season here: having strawberries and tomatoes in December and January. You just kind of go with it.
What can we expect from Angle’s menus this season?
I’m very excited. We’re gonna have some fun with this. I love fall. It is one of my favorite seasons.
I love beets. They grow really well out here, so I’m thinking baby beets with a goat cheese panna cotta. I thought that would be kind of fun.
Also, I’m gonna do a very classic green beans with a housemade crème fraîche with a little cream and a little sherry on the beans, and that’s going to be above some roasted plum tomatoes. It’s almost like a tartare that I do with it, with a nice little salad.
I love doing porridge. I grew up with porridge, so I’ll probably do like a quinoa porridge. We do have local Florida rice, so I’ll probably do something with the Florida rice.
I have so much stuff going in my head. If you call me next week, I’ll have totally changed my mind because I will have found another farmer. It’s like a kid in a candy store.
Definitely squash, stuff from Swank Farm. Probably some beautiful baby greens for a really nice salad, some watermelon radishes.
I do have mangoes left over. At the peak of the season, I preserved a bunch of it, so you’ll probably see some mango stuff, maybe a mango ketchup. I made jam. I froze some, so that way, I still have something to start with.
I have all my cookbooks out. You should see my apartment right now. It’s like a library just exploded in there. My process is very different from everyone else, I think. For me, I have to be very excited about something or else I won’t put it on the menu.
I always tell my guys, “You know we cook for a living? We’re not brain surgeons. We make people happy.” For me, you’ve got to cook with your heart.